SUNDAY EXPRESS, April 8, 2012
Oded Golan was acquitted of forgery chargesBy MATTHEW KALMAN
ODED Golan was just 10 when he stumbled across a small clay tablet inscribed with ancient lettering while walking with his parents near the Sea of Galilee in northern Israel. It proved to be the oldest dictionary yet unearthed, seven lines of a phrase book for merchants in two ancient languages, Akkadian and Sumerian, and nearly 4,000 years old.
Within days, Professor Yigael Yadin, the father of modern Israeli archaeology, came knocking at the door of the family home in Tel Aviv, asking to see “Mr Golan”, not realising that the learned scholar who had sent him a postcard describing the find was a schoolboy.
Golan escorted the professor to his bedroom to show him the artefact and agreed to let Yadin take it back to Jerusalem for analysis. His mother served tea and biscuits.
By the age of 50, after a lifetime of collecting antiquities, Golan was renowned among scholars for owning one of the finest archaeological collections in the world. His Tel Aviv apartment, lined with glass-fronted display cases crammed with ancient pots, weapons, cultic vessels and altars became a place of pilgrimage for academics and dealers. Thousands more pieces were stored in warehouses. However, his hobby was about to land him in jail and make him an object of international ridicule.
"It will remain part of my collection. I don’t intend to sell it"
In 2002, Andre Lemaire, a visiting professor of ancient languages from the Sorbonne, was leafing through the albums of Golan’s collection when he came across a photograph of a Roman-era burial box, or ossuary, made of limestone with the eye-popping inscription “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus” in ancient Aramaic.
Lemaire published the sensational find in the Biblical Archaeology Review. It made headlines around the world. Thousands of people flocked to the first public exhibition at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto. Golan was hailed as the owner of the only item ever discovered that might be connected with the family of Jesus Christ. Academic articles, books and documentaries debating the significance of the ossuary, whose value was conservatively placed at £1.2million, followed.
The celebrations were shortlived. The Israel Antiquities Authority seized the ossuary and subjected it to tests by two panels of experts. It also seized a black stone tablet with an inscription from King Jehoash in the 9th century BC that might be the only item recovered from Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem.
In June 2003 the experts declared both items fake. Golan was arrested and held in jail for a month. Police raided his home, office and warehouses around Tel Aviv, seizing hundreds of items along with tools, computer files and half-finished artefacts that led them to believe Golan was the mastermind behind an antiquities forgery ring that was milking museums and collectors around the world of millions of dollars.
Golan said he had bought the ossuary 25 years earlier from an Arab dealer in the Old City of Jerusalem. “I never faked an antiquity in my life,” he insisted.
In December 2004, he and four others were indicted on 18 counts of forgery, fraud and obtaining money by deception. Golan was placed under house arrest for two years, more than a year of which he had to spend at the home of his elderly parents.
When the trial opened in the Jerusalem District Court in September 2005, Golan faced 44 charges. His reputation was in ruins.
The Israel Antiquities Authority staked its reputation on the trial, recruiting experts from around the world who testified the items were fake. By the time Judge Aharon Farkash retired to consider his verdict in October 2010, he had presided over 120 sessions, examined 200 exhibits (some of them entire books) and heard more than 12,000 pages of testimony from 126 witnesses.
The case revealed furtive encounters with Arab tomb robbers, high finance, skulduggery, smuggling and transactions involving hundreds of thousands of dollars based on a handshake and paid in cash behind the apparently cultured facade of collecting priceless antiquities.
“This was the first time that a court was asked to rule on a question of antiquities forgery,” Judge Farkash said last month, summarising testimony from experts in archaeology, the Bible, chemistry and geochemistry, geology, paleography and more. The list of witnesses read like a who’s who of the world’s leading scholars but as the judge wryly noted in his verdict, even the professors appearing for the same side disagreed with one another and sometimes even with themselves, changing their minds as time passed.
“If you, the world’s leading experts in this field, cannot agree with each other on the authenticity or otherwise of these items, how do you expect me, a mere judge, to reach a conclusion?” he said, before delivering his 475-page verdict on March 14.
Golan was exonerated of forgery, acquitted on 41 of the charges and found guilty on just three minor counts of unlicensed antiquities trading and holding items suspected of being stolen.
Judge Farkash warned that the verdict did not mean the items were necessarily genuine or that the “Jesus” on the ossuary was Jesus Christ but his ruling rescued Golan’s treasures from the dustbin of history. “I was never worried about the ossuary or the Jehoash Tablet,” Golan said after the verdict, “I cannot guarantee that it belonged to the brother of Jesus Christ but it is definitely ancient. I have no doubt about it.”
Born into a wealthy Tel Aviv family, Golan studied engineering and became a serial entrepreneur with successful businesses in travel, architectural seminars, property development and educational software.
Back in his apartment, Golan said he last saw the ossuary two years ago in court. “It will remain part of my collection. I don’t intend to sell it. I will have to consider over the coming months about whether to lend it to a museum or other institution for public exhibition.”
He said he was surprised at the explosion of interest in the ossuary because he knew little about Christian history and had never connected the inscription to Christ. “I purchased it in the mid or late-Seventies in East Jerusalem from one of the dealers in the Old City,” he said. “I didn’t recognise either its importance or its value for a long time. I didn’t even know that Jesus had siblings.
“No one can say for certain it is connected to the family of Jesus but there is a very high likelihood it is. If it really is the burial box of Jesus’s brother, it is a very exciting artefact. It is truly a historic item with a strong emotional importance.”